Oregon’s Dan Lanning looks to build championship foundation with QB battle headlining in spring practice

Few programs matched Oregon on the roller coaster of emotions in 2021. The Ducks picked up perhaps the biggest nonconference victory over the past few years against Ohio State and reached as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25. However, failure to win the Pac-12 and falling out of New Year’s Six contention marked a sour end to a year compounded by coach Mario Cristobal’s departure for Miami.

Now, first-year coach Dan Lanning is charged with taking Oregon into the future. The national championship-winning coordinator was the architect of one of the greatest defenses in modern college football at Georgia, and expectations in Eugene are similarly nothing short of national contention. After five straight years of AP top-10 finishes from 2010-14, the Ducks have failed to reach that mark in six of the past seven seasons.

While Oregon has earned a trip to three consecutive Pac-12 Championship Games, the task is only getting harder out West. Utah — the team that rocked the Ducks twice within three weeks in 2021 – returns the vast majority of its production. Washington State and Oregon State are in the midst of impressive runs within the Ducks’ own division, while Washington and Stanford are never that far off from contention, even during slumps.

If that wasn’t enough, Lincoln Riley takes over at USC with championship expectations of his own, putting the entire conference on notice.

Here’s what to watch as Lanning begins his first spring season as head coach at Oregon.

Offseason changes

Cristobal became the second straight coach to leave Oregon for a dream job in Florida, but the athletic department was unfazed. Instead of overreacting, the Ducks went right back into the Southeast and nabbed one of the hottest young assistants in the nation as Lanning, 35, accepted the job after helping Georgia win a national championship behind his ferocious defense of him.

Lanning surveyed the country to put together a staff with major national ties. Defensive coordinator and California native Tosh Lupoi, who spent the past three seasons in the NFL, is the headliner after emerging as one of the nation’s top recruiters at Alabama. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, 31, has stops at Florida State, Auburn and Memphis in his young career. Adrian Klemm left the Pittsburgh Steelers to become associate head and offensive line coach, while Matt Powledge, 34, came to Eugene as co-DC after coaching Baylor’s safeties to a record-breaking year.

The cupboard is far from bare for Lanning’s staff. Oregon enjoyed four consecutive top-15 recruiting classes before the transitional 2022 class. The Ducks ranked No. 9 in the 2021 247Sports Talent Composite and were right in the thick of the College Football Playoff race until the waning weeks of the season.

But for all the talent on the roster, Oregon has to replace a number of elite playmakers. Departed defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is a projected top-10 NFL Draft pick. Star defensive backs Verone McKinley III and Mykael Wright are gone, too. Travis Dye, the team’s leading rusher, transferred to USC, while top receiver Devon Williams headed to the draft. Offensively, the Ducks are starting from scratch.

For all the recruiting success of the previous administration, Oregon only finished ranked in the AP top 10 once in Cristobal’s four seasons – in 2019 with senior quarterback Justin Herbert. With a varied mix of coaching backgrounds, geographical expertise and nationwide recruiting, Lanning has plenty of runway to take the program forward.

Names to know

  • Bo Nix, quarterback: The former five-star signal-caller transferred to Eugene after throwing for 7,251 yards with 57 total touchdowns as a three-year starter at Auburn. Nix struggled with nearly unmatched hype during his time on The Plains and only modestly improved over his career before getting benched as a junior. However, heading to the Pacific Northwest gives Nix a fresh start with a much more manageable schedule. He will compete with sophomore Ty Thompson for the starting job.
  • Noah Sewell, linebacker: With so many key pieces off to the NFL, Sewell becomes a de facto defensive leader in Lanning’s new system. The younger brother of Detroit Lions offensive lineman and former Ducks star Penei Sewell ranked among the national leaders in 2021 with 114 total tackles, along with 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. After earning All-Pac-12 First Team honors, Sewell could compete for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
  • Byron Cardwell, running back: Though he began his freshman campaign buried on the depth chart, Cardwell quickly forged a role for himself. With Dye and CJ Verdell gone, Cardwell has an opportunity to take Eugene by storm. The San Diego native rushed for 417 yards and three touchdowns on just 61 attempts, highlighted by a 127-yard performance against Colorado on Oct. 30. He led all Ducks running backs with 98 yards rushing and two scores in a hard-fought win against Washington State two weeks later. At 6-foot and 210 pounds, Cardwell has the physical gifts to emerge as a workhorse back out of spring camp. Notably, Cardwell had offers from both Florida State and Auburn – two of Dillingham’s previous stops.

Spring outlook

While Oregon has a young, exciting staff, spring ball will be a critical opportunity for the program to forge an identity. This group of coaches comes together from seven different conference backgrounds plus the NFL. The offensive staff alone features assistants from Air Raid, spread, pro style and NFL offensive systems. Lanning has certainly spent the first few months on campus coming up with a vision, but Oregon needs to develop an identity.

All eyes will be on a quarterback battle that could quickly determine the ceiling for Oregon in 2022. While Dillingham coached Nix for one year at Auburn (2019), Nix committed to Cristobal, not Lanning, which could quickly create a complicated situation. He will compete with Thompson, a former blue-chip prospect himself, who threw 15 passes in relief of Anthony Brown last season. With three of the top four pass-catchers gone, options must step up to support sophomore Kris Hutson.

Defensively, the Ducks need to find more playmakers to surround Sewell and All-Pac-12 defensive lineman Jeffrey Bassa. Star linebacker Justin Flowe should be back healthy after missing a second straight season with injuries. Oregon will also get a boost from touted transfers DL Jordon Riley (Nebraska), safety Christian Gonzalez (Colorado) and DL Sam Taimani (Washington). All should push for immediate playing time.

If Lanning can find his vision for the program quickly, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Oregon has a head start as a program over the rest of the Pac-12 – especially the North Division – because of the groundwork Cristobal set. Schematically, Lanning should instantly be a difference-maker defensively. Nix or Thompson could provide upside at quarterback.

Oregon can win the Pac-12 and compete for New Year’s Six bowl games from start of the Lanning era. However, it will take a committed spring from the Ducks to get on the same page.

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